Grub Street: The Literary and the Literatory in
Eighteenth-Century Britain

John O'Brien

Since the eighteenth century at least, literary history and criticism has had a lot invested in the concept of the author. Despite the well-publicized death of the author at the hands of poststructuralist theorists such as Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, authors remain the heroes of most of the stories we tell and most of the courses we teach; we admire their genius, lament their neglect, use historical and biographical contexts to illuminate new facets of texts that we call their "works," and we frequently name courses after them. The purpose of "Grub Street," which I taught in the spring of 1997 as a senior seminar of seventeen students at Texas A & M University, was to interrogate the concept of authorship by placing the-figure of the author into the context of the publishing and critical industries as they emerged in Britain during the eighteenth century. It was not my intention to kill off the author once and for all for my students, but rather to help them see that many aspects of authorship as we now understand are historical inventions. Why, for example, are authors, rather than patrons or publishers, the first individuals we typically associate with literary works? And how did it happen that some texts get to be identified as being literary, that is, of high artistic merit, and others come to be thought of as vulgar and common, as popular diversion rather than serious art—in short, the product of the "literatory," the term that The Grub-Street Journal coined to identify printing shops like that of the bookseller and publisher Edmund Curll. That The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, for example, was seen by some contemporaries as belonging to the literatory but is now ranked, certainly in the minds of my students, as a literary classic, suggests that these categories are not absolute but subject to negotiation and change over time.

When I first envisioned this course, I imagined that the class could take on a pretty long list of topics. I sketched out separate units on the conflict between the ancients and the modems, the eighteenth-century's understanding of William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope's Dunciad, the novel, and the emergence of copyright law. Needless to say, when these visions met the Procrustean bed of a fourteen-week semester schedule, one further bifurcated by a spring break, I had to do a lot of reassessing, which amounted, I hope, less to scaling back than to refocusing. And I also tried to keep practical issues of cost to the students in view. I knew from the start that I'd be asking students to buy a very substantial xerox packet, but all things being equal, I wanted to make use of reasonably inexpensive paperback editions where I could. In the end, I organized the course into three units, two of five weeks and one of four weeks, each of which is a kind of case study using the example of a single major text and author to get at the kind of broader issues that I want to take up. First, the class undertook a five-week unit on the social and legal status of authorship in the early eighteenth century. Here we used the examples of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Eliza Haywood's short novel Fantomina to get at questions such as the relationship between writers and printers, the development of copyright law, and what this kind of writing looked like to the kind of literary critics who had been given the kind of university education that was not available to Defoe or Haywood. The second unit is on the eighteenth century's understanding of a dead but extraordinarily influential author, William Shakespeare. Here the central text was King Lear. We read both Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of King Lear and Nahum Tate's 1680 adaptation of it entitled The History of King Lear, which was of course the only version of the play that any eighteenth-century theatergoer in Britain would have seen. The third and final unit is organized around Alexander Pope's mock-epic The Dunciad. One good thing—and something that I had not planned in advance—is that each unit addresses a totally different genre, the first unit discussing the form of narrative fiction that would ultimately be called the English novel, the second unit the drama, and the third unit poetry. I'm glad that things worked out that way, but it only after I had pretty much finished the syllabus that I realized this was the case.

I also experimented with the Internet, setting up a listserv discussion group to create a forum for exchanges outside the classroom. My intention here was to see if putting this new mode of textual production and transmission in play in the course would make some of the features of textual production through print more obvious. This experiment was more or less a flop, I'm sorry to admit; I tried again and again to get discussions started on the listserv, but the students resisted it. One source of difficulty was out of our control, namely that one of the e-mail servers at Texas A & M crashed in the middle of the semester, throwing everything into complete chaos for several days and disabling all listservs for several weeks. But even before and after these technical problems, the students were very reluctant to get on the system and to use it to discuss the readings, partly because some of them tended to get to those readings only at the last minute before class anyway, and partly because of lingering Luddism, which surprised and distressed me. During the discussion of the courses in the teaching competition at the ASECS annual meeting in April 1997, other instructors who had experimented with listservs reported similar frustrations, but several were able to share strategies for overcoming them that I'll try in the future. One instructor, for example, makes each student in the class responsible for managing a single topic or "thread" over the listserv throughout the entire semester; another uses it as a forum for students to frame and articulate questions to be pursued in class discussions. Although my experience with the listserv this time out was a frustrating one, I'm determined to try again; the Internet is only going to become more important over time, and at a university like Texas A & M, where there are 42,000 students on campus, no means of facilitating communication can be left idle.

The first unit was designed to give a sense of the complicated and precarious position of "the author" in the early eighteenth century: on the one hand, authors were trying to claim respectability for their profession; on the other hand, they were caught between a declining patronage system and a cutthroat commercial system, while at the same time being subject to attack for running afoul of norms and standards encoded in the law. We approached authorship from several vantage points, for example performing close readings of dedications to tease out the details of the author-patron relationship, and also reading the first number of Addison and Steele's Spectator series, a journal that derives considerable "authority" from the fact that its writers remained anonymous. The payoff for this unit was our reading of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. One of the reasons for choosing Robinson Crusoe was that it occupies such a prominent place in the culture, one that goes far beyond the 1719 book (which was published anonymously) in which the character of Robinson Crusoe himself was introduced to the world. In that spirit, the class also read the introductory material to the two sequels that Defoe himself undertook, which the students, like most people, did not know existed. I also had the students look at some other popular representations of Robinson Crusoe—illustrations, chapbooks, etc. Finally, I asked the students to read some of the eighteenth-century biographies of Defoe—the short biography by Theophilus Cibber in his 1753 compendium of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and excerpts from George Chalmers 1787 Life of Defoe, the first full-length biography, as well as the first attempt to come up with, a canon of Defoe's writings. It's in these books that biographers began to describddefoe as an "Author," a figure of significance in English literary history, rather than as a political journalist or hack writer.

The second unit was on the eighteenth-century's understanding of Shakespeare, who is somehow both the most characteristically English and the most original of all authors in the English literary tradition. My goal here has been to try to show some evidence for what I think a lot of students have always suspected—that the Shakespeare they were made to read in high school is not some entity who transcends space, time, and situation, but a cultural construction. We began by reading Shakespeare's King Lear itself in a modem edition. My goal in doing this at the outset of the unit was to help us gain as a group a reasonably solid handle on that play as it looks in 1997 to give us a baseline from which to talk about how eighteenth century readers and theatergoers thought about it. I chose the Cambridge edition in large part because it does a fairly responsible job of discussing the well-known problem of the differing texts of this play as we have them from Shakespeare's own lifetime. The idea that the text of a Shakespeare play can itself be an object of critical dispute is a pretty new one to most undergraduate students, and although I don't want to spend a whole lot of time on the question—much less to lead students to think that they need to solve the problem of the two texts—I did want to let students know that even in 1997 trying to determine what Shakespeare wrote is an ongoing subject of debate. Next, we read the Nahum Tate adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, first produced in 1682 and the only version of the play that was performed on stage in Britain during the eighteenth century. Tate spares the lives of Lear and Cordelia, an outcome that contemporary theater audiences and critics largely approved. I tried to play devil's advocate here and to argue that Tate's version has its advantages, particularly with respect to Cordelia, who is sacrificed at the end of Shakespeare's play arouably for no good reason. My students, however, were truly ruthless and quite willing to let her die.

Then we turned to the issue of eighteenth-century Shakespeare criticism. We read the bulk of John Dennis's 1712 Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare, a work that lets students know a little bit about how Shakespeare was talked about by literary critics at the start of the century, and that introduces the concept of "poetic justice," an idea that was crucial to discussions of Shakespeare's tragedies, particularly King Lear—it's one of the justifications for sparing Lear and Cordelia. We also read the preface to Samuel Johnson's edition of Shakespeare, published in 1765. As is well known, Johnson dismantles some of the neoclassical rules which critics like John Dennis had used to find fault with Shakespeare. But he also endorsed Tate's version of King Lear, which suggests that he was not ready to give up all neoclassical rules. Finally, we read Alexander Pope's intro-duction to his edition of Shakespeare and Lewis Theobold's preface to his essay Shakespeare Restored, which attacks Pope's edition and puts forth Theobold's own view of Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare criticism proved to be the most difficult material all semester for my students to deal with. Part of the difficulty obviously is that the issues are complicated and the prose style unfamiliar; eighteenth-century critical discourse is a different animal from novelistic discourse, which is challenging enough for most students. But perhaps a more significant problem was that a lot of the students found it difficult to think of Shakespeare as anything other than a sort of transcendent, irreproachable genius—its almost as if the high school teachers who must have impressed them with the greatness of Shakespeare as a way of ensuring their interest have done their job all too well. There were a couple of classes in which I found myself under attack from students for trying to argue that maybe Dennis and Johnson had a legitimate criticisms to make of Shakespeare's plot construction, for example. I really kind of struck a nerve, which was interesting but slightly disconcerting.

The final unit of the course is in a sense devoted to that central document of eighteenth-century Britain's culture wars, Alexander Pope's The Dunciad. This text began, as is well known, as Pope's response to Theobold's criticism of Pope's edition of Shakespeare but it of course grew to encompass a much broader attack on the popular culture, sweepingly categorizing its purveyors as Dunces gleefully destroying the nation at the behest of the goddess Dulness. My hope was that by the time we go to The Dunciad, students would be able to identify some of the issues at stake for themselves, and I was gratified to see that this was indeed the case for at least some members of the class. I started by having the students read Pope's Essay on Criticism, a poem in which the young Pope makes the case that criticism is something that should be performed by authors themselves rather than by mere critics.

We were lucky enough to have a special guest at this point—my colleague Margaret Ezell, who works on coterie literature and the relationship between print culture and the coterie texts that circulated in manuscript and were never intended to be printed and published. The historical case that brings this tension out beautifully is Pope's feud with Edmund Curll over Curll's publication of some of

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's poems, which were circulating in manuscript in London court circles. The last thing that anyone in such a coterie wanted was to see these poems in print, and Pope proudly tells the story of how he slipped Curll an emetic in revenge for having published them. The students took to the whole idea of coterie literature so well that I think one of the things I'll want to do the next time I teach this course is to spend more than one class on it, and really examine the topic of manuscript circulation, and to see how print culture and manuscript culture continue to overlap in significant ways throughout the eighteenth century. And my students also took to Margaret Ezell so well that I'm afraid that they were disappointed with having to deal only with me for the rest of the semester.

The centerpiece for this unit, and in a way for the class as a whole, was a mock trial, held in class. History records that Pope sued Curll over the issue of Curll's unauthorized publication of Pope's letters. But we also know that Pope himself manipulated Curll into publishing these letters in order to stoke demand for a fully-"authorized" edition. In our class, Curll sued Pope for libel and defamation of character, and the students, separated into rival teams representing the plaintiff and the defendant, prepared briefs fisr their chosen client. The issues involved are extraordinarily tangled, and not simply because Pope himself was not above using deception, trickery, and chemistry to get the better of Curll. It's easy for us to see that Curll was acting without "authority" by printing poems, letters, and other material he had neither paid not received permission for. But, as Curll himself asked Pope, "who gave you the authority of punishing me?"

My great fear was that nobody would volunteer to participate in this trial, but that turned out not to be the case, in pail because I offered an incentive; students who were willing to take part in the trial as participants would not have to produce the written "brief" that was required of those who did not. Lured sufficiently by the prospect of not having to write the brief to overcome their anxiety at speaking in public, six students came forward, which worked out nicely into teams of three. One student took the part of Pope, one student played Curll, one student served as each of their attorneys, and one student was cast as an expert witness for each side. I pre sided as judge and the remainder of the class sat as the jury. The trial was a great and gratifying success. The students clearly enjoyed the chance to break the usual classroom framework of readings and discussion; they prepared for the trial carefully, were able to articulate the issues in great detail and complexity, and, when the opportunity came, cross-examined each other shrewdly. (I allowed members of the jury to ask questions as well, and was glad I did, since they had good contributions to make to the proceedings.) The jury returned what I thought was a splendid and appropriate verdict, finding both men culpable of wrongdoing, and sentencing them to be placed in the stocks within spitting distance of each other. The verdict suggests that at some level the students understood that the many conflicts between the author, the publisher, and the critic are never really resolved. Rather, these conflicts are negotiated anew over and over again; every age comes to a different accommodation based on its own needs and desires.

This has not always been an easy course to teach; as one of my students put it, I was often asking the class to look at issues "sideways," to think about texts in different kinds of contexts than those to which they had become accustomed in most of their other courses. But I think that it's part of the point of a senior seminar to ask students to try out new ways of imagining literature, and wanted with this course to find ways to make connections between English classes and the real world into which seniors are graduating. I do have changes that I want to make before I teach "Grub Street" again. I want to figure out ways to get more women authors into the syllabus; they're here in this version of the course, but only intermittently. I need to find ways of talking about female authorship in relation to the issues of the course more concretely, and think that devoting more time to the topic of coterie writing—much of which is by women—will be one way to accomplish this. And I'm convinced that the Internet can and should be used more productively than I've been able to do so in this course. But perhaps the most important test of the course is that such concerns don't discourage so much as they make me want to teach "Grub Street" again as soon as I can.



Course Syllabus


Required texts:

Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Penguin) William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of King Lear (Cambridge University Press)

Mark Rose: Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Harvard University Press) course packet

Class requirements:

A seminar is a collective enterprise, which means that active participation in the group is not a luxury, but a requirement. I expect you to attend every class and to participate frequently to our discussions, both in the classroom and via the listsen, that will enable us to continue the conversation on the Internet. (You must therefore have an active e-mail account.) You will be responsible for three written assignments:

* a 3-4 page analysis of a critical essay; I will provide a list of possible essays, from which you will make your own choice.

* a "brief' of 4-6 pages defending your chosen position in the trial of Edmund Curll vs. Alexander Pope, to be held in class.

* a seminar paper (12-15 pages), on a topic you have arrived at in consultation with me. So that everyone can benefit from your research, you will present a brief, oral summary of your seminar paper to the entire group in the last week of classes.

Grades will be calculated thusly:
class participation (includes listserv): 30%
analysis of critical essay: 15%
"brief": 15%
seminar paper: 40%


Reading Schedule: [*=in course packet]

Unit I. Approaching the Literatory: Authors, Printers, Critics

Week 1

Introduction to course

Aphra Behn, dedication to The Emperor of the Moon*

"G.J.," dedication to The Widow Ranter*

Henry Fielding, dedication to Tom Jones*

Samuel Johnson, letter to Lord Chesterfield*

Dustin Griffin, "The cultural economics of literary patronage"*


Week 2

Joseph Addison, Spectator #1

Terry Belanger, "Publishers and writers in eighteenth-century England"*

Mark Rose, The Invention of Copyright, chapter one

Jonathan Swift, The Battel of the Books (1710)*

Rose, chapter two


Week 3

Eliza Haywood, Fantomina, or Love in a Maze*

Daniel Defoe (?), A Vindication of the Press (1718)*

W.R. Owens and P.N. Furbank, "A Vindication of the Press (1718): Not by Defoe?"*

Maximilian Novak—"A Vindication of the Press and the Defoe Canon"* Owens and Furbank, "The Defoe Canon Again"

Laura A. Curtis, "The Attribution of A Vindication of the Press to Daniel Defoe"*


Week 4

Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Defoe, prefaces to The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe*

Chapbook versions and illustrations of Robinson Crusoe [to come]

Pat Rogers, "Classics and Chapbooks"*

Rose, chapter 3


Week 5

Charles Gildon, "The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Mr D___ De F__"*

Reconstructing the Author

Theophilus Cibber, from Lives of the Poets of Great Britain (1753)* George Chalmers, from Life of Defoe (1787)*

Review of critical essay due


Unit II. The History of William Shakespeare

Week 6

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear Shakespeare, King Lear (continued)


Week 7

Nahum Tate, The History of King Lear*

Tate, King Lear (continued)

Laura Rosenthal, "(Re)Writing Lear"*


Week 8

John Dennis, An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare, letters I and III*

Gary Taylor, "1709," from Reinventing Shakespeare*

Visit to library


Week 9

Alexander Pope, preface to The Works of Shakespear (1725)

Lewis Theobold, from Shakespeare Restored (1726)*

Samuel Johnson, preface to 7he Plays of William Shakespeare (1765)

Charlotte Lennox/Samuel Johnson, from Shakespeare Illustrated


Unit III. Alexander Pope vs. the Dunces

Week 10

Alexander Pope—An Essay on Criticism (1711)

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu—"Roxana"—two versions: a modem printed version, and a xerox copy of Pope's own manuscript of the poem

Alexander Pope—Three Attacks on Edmund Curll

Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope, a Life (excerpt on Pope's relationship with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu)

*Guest appearance by Margaret Ezell


Week 11

The Dunciad Variorum Book I (be sure to read everything up to the start of Book I as well; you'll see what I mean when you get to it)

The Dunciad, Book II


Week 12

The Dunciad, Book III and appendices


Week 13

Mock-trial—Edmund Curll vs. Alexander Pope

Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope—excerpt on the maneuvering concerning Pope's letters

Edmund Curll, preface to Mr. Pope's Literary Correspondence

Alexander Pope—A Narrative of the Method by which the Private Letters of Mr. Pope have been procur'd and publish'd by Edmund Curll, Bookseller (includes Curll's rebutting notes!)

Mark Rose—chapter four and appendix to Authors and Owners

Trial aftermath


Week 14

Student presentations of final paper topics

 

 

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